Lessons from Ancient Indian Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 29, 2010 in General Atheism

There were apparently many anti-superstitious atheists in ancient India. (I wrote of Ajita Kesakambali earlier.) Mostly, we know of them through their religious critics in Indian scripture.

One such passage is known as Payasi Suttanta, from perhaps the 6th century B.C. In it, a holy man, Master Kassapa, confronts an unbeliever, Payasi, about his non-belief in dualism, reincarnation, and karma:

Now at that time there came over Payasi an evil view of things, to this effect: “Neither is there any other world, nor are there beings reborn otherwise than from parents, nor is there fruit or results of deeds, well done or ill done.”

Notice right away that Payasi’s doubt about dualism, reincarnation, and karma are attributed to “evil” rather than thinking or reasons. It will remind Westerners of ancient Israelite scriptures which attribute non-belief to evil and corruption. Or, in philosophical parlance, the “noetic effects of sin.”

Still, Payasi is given a chance to give his reasons for doubt. Master Kassapa asks:

Have you… any proof to establish that [another realm, reincarnation, and karma] do not exist?

Note again the similarity to the Christian/Muslim tradition. Rather than expecting to prove his claim that there is truth to dualism, reincarnation, and karma, the holy man asks Payasi to prove they are false. One wishes Payasi would have protested, but he does not.

First, Payasi says he knew some very evil men and some very good men and he got them to promise that if they died and were reborn in a lower or higher state they would go and tell Payasi about it so he would know that what the holy men said was true. But nobody has come and told him. Payasi thinks this is evidence against reincarnation and karma.

Master Kassapa replies with the ad hoc hypothesis that there are keepers of the “other world” who do not allow reincarnated persons to tell anyone of their experiences after death. He concludes:

Be this exposition a proof to you… that these things exist.

The ad hoc hypothesis is rather silly, as is the claim that this possibility proves that reincarnation is true. But hey, it’s ancient religious text. Par for the course.

Next, Payasi says he knows many holy men who live good lives believe in dualism, reincarnation, and karma. But if they believe their life after death will be so much better than their life on Earth, then why do they not kill themselves? Payasi concludes that even holy men do not believe there is life after death. (Or as Doug Stanhope put it, “If you really believe that death leads to eternal bliss, then why are you wearing a seatbelt?”)

Master Kassapa gives an astonishing reply, something to the effect of “You are foolish and evil, so you wouldn’t understand.” (Kassapa calls Payasi ‘Prince’.)

Once upon a time, Prince, there was a brahmin who had two wives. By one he had a son, ten or twelve years of age; the other was pregnant and near her time. Then the brahmin died. Now the boy said to his mother’s co-wife: “Whatever treasure there is, lady, or grain, or silver, or gold, all that is mine. There is nothing here for you whatever; make over to me lady, the heritage of my father!”

Then the [co-wife] made answer to him: “Wait, my lad, till my child is born. If it will be a boy, one portion shall be his; if a girl, she shall wait on you.”

But the boy reiterated his claim again and yet again. Then the [co-wife], taking a sword… ripped up her belly, saying, “If I can only find out whether it is a boy or a girl!” Thus did she destroy both her own life and her unborn infant and her wealth also, through the foolish and thoughtless way in which, seeking a heritage, she met with ruin and disaster.

Even so you, Prince, foolish and thoughtless that you are, will meet with ruin and disaster by seeking, without wisdom, another world. Moral and virtuous… brahmins do not force maturity on that which is unripe; they, being wise, wait for that maturity. The virtuous have need of their life. In proportion to the length of time such men abide here, is the abundant merit that they produce and accomplish for many…

Let this be a proof to you, Prince, that there is another world, that there is rebirth [and] that there is fruit and result of deeds well and ill-done.

Wowza. So non-believers are just too stupid to understand – as stupid as a pregnant woman who cuts herself open to discover the sex of her unborn child.

Next, Payasi suggests they could put a live man into a large jar and seal it with leather and cement, then put it in a fire so the man roasts to death inside. Then they could take the jar out of the fire and uncover the top, and if they see no soul escape, this would show there is no soul.

Master Kassapa replies that souls are invisible, so this would prove nothing.

So… yeah.

We’re still playing the same game, 2500 years later.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Ajay June 29, 2010 at 8:28 am

Having just spent extensive time in India, the same arguments are essentially what I still hear from Indian theists (and the overwhelming number of them are theists). In Hindi, there is a word for atheist (naastik) but most people use the word ‘adharmik’ which literally means ‘without morals’.

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Ajay June 29, 2010 at 8:30 am

Whoops, I got that backward. The term for immoral in Hindi that many people use is ‘adharmik’ which means ‘without religion’. Sorry.

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svenjamin June 29, 2010 at 8:50 am

Awesome, keep the ancient Indian stuff coming as you have the time!

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Reginald Selkirk June 29, 2010 at 8:52 am

I own the pictured book.

None of the original Carvaka documents exist, so the only knowledge we have of them is from snippets reproduced in rebuttals by their opponents.

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Haukur June 29, 2010 at 9:00 am

The point of the story about the pregnant woman isn’t just that she was stupid and so is Payasi – the analogy goes deeper.

I’m not sure if it is well-established that Payasi was historical – could he be a character like Korihor?

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Eneasz June 29, 2010 at 9:44 am

Whoops, I got that backward. The term for immoral in Hindi that many people use is ‘adharmik’ which means ‘without religion’.

Very similar to here. A commonly-used synonym for “evil” or “immoral” is “godless”.

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Mike Caton June 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm

One of the strong points of atheism is its repeated rediscovery throughout the ages. Lucretius in classical Rome, Hrafnkell in medieval Iceland, and Sconchin Jon’s son on an Indian reservation in nineteenth-century California all figured it out on their own. Contrast this with knowledge by divine revelation. Despite the claim of a self-evident and all-powerful god, to my knowledge, there are no Christians or Muslims who claim that it has happened or even COULD happen that some guy sitting in a rainforest by himself could ever figure out that the only god is Allah and Muhammad is His prophet, or that Christ is the Son of God and the Bible the revealed word. For some reason, humans can only encounter this Truth with the help of other humans to come on mundane boats with mundane books to help them figure it out (unlike metalworking, right angles and planetary orbits). Yet if these faiths were “true” in any sense, at least SOMEtimes people would be able to figure it out on their own, and when the missionaries/colonists/conquerors/traders showed up in Madagascar or the Aleutians, the local folks would say “Yes, we knew already because we deduced it.” But that never happened with religion. It has only happened with non-belief, for a very good reason.

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Haukur June 29, 2010 at 12:59 pm

But that never happened with religion. It has only happened with non-belief, for a very good reason.

There are some really strong arguments for atheism out there but this is not one of them.

a) Atheism is actually vanishingly rare in world cultures before the 19th century. Even your own examples show this – Hrafnkell, a 10th century semi-legendary character, gets essentially one ‘atheist’ line in his story: “I think it is foolish to have faith in the gods.” And we have no idea what the author who wrote the story 300 years later meant by that – maybe he thought of Hrafnkell as a sort of noble pagan who had rejected the pagan religion but not had the opportunity to hear the true gospel. And even the Epicureans aren’t a shining example of atheism. Epicurus thought it was self-evident that there were gods and Lucretius begins his poem with a prayer to Venus.

b) Religions in different parts of the world have a lot of things in common and traditionally people used to regard them as compatible with each other. It’s not as if the Romans were atheists when it came to the Germanic or Celtic gods.

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Atheist.pig June 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm

(Or as Doug Stanhope put it, “If you really believe that death leads to eternal bliss, then why are you wearing a seatbelt?”)

Or as Bill Maher put it – http://youtu.be/yN7wLtJhUBo

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Mat June 29, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I think the Buddha was an atheist against rebirth and mysticism.

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svenjamin June 29, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Hmm, I think Mike’s idea is kind of interesting. If I recall, Cicero applied a number of still-used arguments for the existence of the gods to refute atheists of his time. Early Buddhism was practically atheistic, although Buddhists certainly subscribed to some notion of rebirth, as problematic as this was in a system rejecting the notion of an enduring self. But this idea that atheism is independently deduced while all theism are usually quite disparate is intriguing. There might be a good argument in there.

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Jeff H June 29, 2010 at 6:58 pm

a) Atheism is actually vanishingly rare in world cultures before the 19th century.

Haukur,

To be fair, it would be more accurate to say that we have little textual evidence of atheism in world cultures before the 19th century. Unfortunately it’s difficult to give a belief questionnaire posthumously, but it’s likely that there were some atheists out there who simply didn’t write anything down, or didn’t know how to write, or wrote things that haven’t come down to us for whatever reason. Of course, it’s speculation either way, really, but it seems at least plausible that some people were asking the question, “Are these invisible people we keep talking about actually real?”

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Haukur June 30, 2010 at 2:48 am

Jeff, I don’t disagree with that. Also remember that wise guys saying things like that weren’t always the most popular lot.

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Ajayraju June 30, 2010 at 3:42 am

As per my reading, I dont think Buddha was an atheist against Karma. At his time, Karma is a strong fact and no one including him doubted that. It is as good as a fact that we believe now in gravity and solar system etc.

So, his aim was to find a way to avoid the cycle of life and death and attain salvation. But i believe he may be an atheist against the Hindu gods and scriptures and idol worship etc.

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Hermes June 30, 2010 at 4:33 am

Is Karma a deity?

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Mikeanthoney July 4, 2010 at 3:50 am

Haukur,

a) Atheism is actually vanishingly rare in world cultures before the 19th century.

I don’t think that is what Mike was getting at. His argument suggests that the independent conclusion that certain religious propositions are bogus, discovered by many others, myself included, demonstrates that atheism seems like a more self-evident “truth.”

The fact the Mormonism, Islam, and Judaism aren’t independently verifiable belief systems, without some prior contact or knowledge, is definitely problematic.

It would be interesting if we could investigate an ancient lineage of people who had never been exposed to supernatural thinking. Might they have strange stories of ancestors who suddenly began fashioning sticks into crosses and started babbling incessantly about the end of the world?

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lukeprog July 4, 2010 at 5:48 am

As for atheism being vanishingly rare, that’s just not true. Most of the ancient indian philosophical schools were non-theistic, and most forms of Buddhism, Jainism, and Chinese philosophies have been non-theistic for thousands of years.

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Haukur July 7, 2010 at 11:05 am

As for atheism being vanishingly rare, that’s just not true. Most of the ancient indian philosophical schools were non-theistic, and most forms of Buddhism, Jainism, and Chinese philosophies have been non-theistic for thousands of years.

Why did you switch from ‘atheism’ to ‘non-theistic’ in that paragraph?

Very few pre-19th century Buddhists, Jainists, Taoists and followers of Confucius were atheists. This holds even if some rarefied philosophies can be described as ‘non-theistic’.

Actually, lots of religious people don’t subscribe to anything like the ‘theism’ of Western philosophers and their detractors. Take for example “Basic Theism” as defined here. To take just one thing, lots of people don’t believe in a god that is “distinct from, and the creator of, the universe”. Are all those people atheists? No, not in anything like the sense the word ‘atheist’ is normally used.

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lukeprog July 7, 2010 at 11:20 am

Haukur,

I suspect ours is a semantic confusion. I substituted ‘atheism’ for ‘non-theism’ because when I use them, those words mean the same thing.

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